The province's decision to restrict access to COVID-19 rapid-test kits is causing confusion and frustration.
As of Wednesday, rapid tests are only available to people aged two to 49 with symptoms and can obtained only by booking an appointment.
Many people standing in line at the Saint John test kit pickup site Wednesday did not know about the changes, including a front-line worker who tests regularly because of the risk of exposure.
As recently as last Wednesday, the province was encouraging all New Brunswickers to "continue periodic testing with rapid point-of-care tests if they have a known exposure, even if they are asymptomatic."
Before the holidays, it urged people to keep gatherings as small as possible and "use rapid tests to slow and reduce the spread."
People could pick up more than one kit without even providing their name.
Now, people without symptoms no longer qualify for a rapid-test kit and anyone with symptoms must go through the province's COVID-19 testing website, click on "get tested," and fill out an online questionnaire.
"Those with symptoms, and who are aged two to 49 and do not live in a vulnerable setting, will be advised to take a rapid test," Public Health said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.
"After registering their information, they can book an appointment to pick up a rapid-test kit at a local assessment centre. Anyone picking up rapid tests must present an email confirmation of their appointment."
If people can't book an appointment online because they don't have access to a computer or the internet, they can call Tele-Care 811 "at this time," said Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane.
The province has also stopped supplying the Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton airports with the free rapid-test kits, Macfarlane confirmed.
"Providing rapid POCT [point-of-care rapid-test kits] to the three major airports in the province was a temporary, preventative measure meant to capture travel-related cases over the holiday season," he said in an emailed statement. "Our goal as a province is to slow the spread of COVID-19, and to ensure hospital capacity."
Tuesday's news release about other new COVID-19 testing and isolation measures that took effect at 11:59 p.m. made no mention of these changes, but Macfarlane did confirm to CBC News on Tuesday night that symptoms and appointments are now required for rapid-test kits. No reasons were provided.
Green Party Leader David Coon called the decision to "severely limit" access to rapid tests "short-sighted, and unhelpful."
"The week-long wait for an appointment to pick up the rapid test kit makes it seem irrational," he posted on Twitter.
"Why wouldn't you tell anyone about this in advance?" Megan Mitton, the MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar and the Green Party's health critic, asked on social media.
"Why do communications from government continue to be confusing?"
Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, said "it's a very rapidly evolving situation."
"We're building this as it's unfolding," she said. "So we want to make sure that we have everything in place, you know, behind the scenes with respect to what needs to be done on the website, the logistics, the operations of all this.
"So those pieces all take time and work and effort. So again, you have to have all those things lined up to announce and prepare people."
People who show up Wednesday without an appointment won't be turned away, she said, because the province is "in this transition period." But they will need an appointment moving forward, which will help avoid long lineups in the winter, she added.
Mitton said it was "a mess" at the Port Elgin site.
"I've heard that people showed up to the mobile rapid test pickup site and have been told to go home and register (even when they don't have internet). I've heard there has been yelling and [frustration]," she tweeted around 3:30 p.m.
The Horizon Health Network posted on social media that the change wouldn't take effect until Thursday and will remain in effect "until further notice."
At the Moncton distribution centre, however, they stopped giving out tests to people without appointments around 3 p.m., said Radio-Canada reporter Pascal Raiche-Nogue.
The booking process itself is also causing confusion, because of some contradictory messaging.
People must now have COVID-19 symptoms to obtain a rapid-test kit, but their appointment confirmation comes with a message saying, "If you have symptoms or feel ill on the day of your appointment, please do not come."
Russell said she wasn't aware of that and will raise it with the people who built the website.
The province's COVID-19 testing website says, "If you have one or more symptoms, you must isolate and register for a COVID-19 test."
"You are permitted to leave isolation to get a PCR test or to pick up your POCT kits."
Meanwhile, the top of Horizon's website says, "You must have COVID-19 symptoms and an appointment to pick up point-of-care test (POCT) kits," while the bottom still indicates the rapid test screening program is "aimed at people 2 and older who do not have symptoms."
"I think it'll take a few days to work out the kinks, but I am very confident that it will be as streamlined as it possibly can be," Russell said, urging people to be patient.
"As we move through, it will get easier and it will get simpler."
Some people have been skipping over the screening questionnaire and booking rapid-test kit pickup appointments, despite not having any symptoms.
Russell discourages that.
"We don't want to run out unnecessarily in terms of the people that really need them," she said.
"We can't control of all those things. We just have to trust that people will do the right thing."
Asked what prompted the change in distribution and whether it's supply-related, Russell's answer focused instead on the change in use of tests.
The province is now limiting diagnostic PCR (polymerase chain reaction) lab tests to those considered at the highest risk of being hospitalized with COVID-19, while everyone else has to rely on the less accurate at-home rapid tests and self-report positive results.
"We are trying to focus our efforts and energy and resources on the health-care system with respect to keeping people out of the hospital," she said.
Over the next week, the province will have 1.75 million rapid tests and next week, it will have three million tests, she noted.
Horizon Health posted on Twitter that its rapid screening pickup locations — both hub and mobile — will have "limited supplies available" Wednesday.
"That means we may not always be open for the duration of our scheduled hours at our pickup locations."
PCR tests will now be reserved for those at the highest risk of being hospitalized due to COVID-19. These include:
Health-care workers and those who live or work in long-term care facilities, homeless shelters and correctional facilities.
People who are symptomatic and aged 50 and over.
People who are symptomatic and immunocompromised.
People who are symptomatic and pregnant.
People who are identified as a priority by Public Health.
People who need a PCR test for travel, residents of First Nations communities and children under two are also eligible to receive a PCR test.
For everyone else, a positive rapid test will be treated as a positive result for COVID-19, and people will be asked to register their result online.
"Due to rising case numbers caused by the Omicron variant, we need to ensure that every person with symptoms is able to get a test," Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said in a statement. "This means that people without symptoms do not qualify for a rapid-test kit."
There is no need to stockpile tests, she said, encouraging anyone with kits at home and no symptoms to share the tests with family and friends who may need them.
"We anticipate access to additional rapid tests over the coming days and weeks for anyone who has symptoms and must ensure we are protecting our most vulnerable," she said.
Once people test positive on a rapid test, no further testing is required, according to the province's website.
"You will continue to test positive for up to 90 days, even though you may no longer be infectious. Therefore, do not keep testing until you get a negative result," it states.
People who test positive with a rapid test must isolate for five days if they are vaccinated with two doses, or 10 days if they have not received two doses or are immunocompromised.
Their isolation period starts the day they test positive.
They may stop isolating once they've completed their isolation period if they've been fever-free for at least 24 hours without using fever-reducing medications and their symptoms are improving.
After isolation, they must wear a mask continuously and avoid vulnerable settings and gatherings for the next five days.
All household contacts of people who test positive must isolate for five days if they're fully vaccinated and 10 days if they're not fully vaccinated.
All non-household close contacts must self-monitor for symptoms for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status.